We are shown an idyllic English landscape haunted by past events: fields of early medieval battle in a commonplace Essex field. The ghosts of battle echo on the wind, while the silence and stillness of the present is visualised by the prancing of deer.
The opening scene of Detectorists 2022 special sees Lance and Andy agreeing with the landowner Kevin to explore a new ‘permission’. The flowers, the soil, insects and bugs, birds and trees as well as the ploughed fields provide the rich setting in the sandy countryside with prominent hedgerows lined with fir trees. The spiritual and the historical blend together as two friends seek out the hidden past of the countryside.
In the context of the publication of my recent co-edited collection – The Public Archaeology of Treasure – I composed a review of series 1-3 of the comedy drama Detectorists. I identified how the comedy drama presents the dedicated and often fruitless hobby of searching for mundane items. As such, I argue it provides a means of reflecting on England’s story stored in finds beneath its fields. The focus on early Englishness is especially prominent, mediated through the tale of two men’s friendship and relationship with the countryside and, specifically, the archaeology of the early Anglo-Saxons in series 1 and 2. Here, let’s extend this discussion to the recent 2022 Christmas special.
The episode follows Lance and Andy yet again seeking out hidden treasures, this time at a new site with the agreement of the landowner that soon results in the discovery of early Anglo-Saxon battle site. The drama surrounds the need for the metal detecting club to raise funds for a new Scout hall and Lance being reluctant to share the importance of the discoveries he made. The tensions between Lance and Andy reflect divergent attitudes towards detected finds and their significance for people today: one focused on value, one on story and significance. I wish to tackle two themes in particular – how the episode deals with the relationship between metal detecting, archaeology and wider society, and the way in which early Anglo-Saxon archaeology features.
‘If they ask where it is, be vague’ – Archaeology and Metal Detecting
The show to date has deftly circumvented the many deep-seated ethical, legal and social concerns with metal detecting as a hobby. Professional archaeologists (which includes Andy for a while before being disillusioned by the gross unprofessionalism of the developer-led commercial archaeology sector) are generally negatively portrayed. Even when he later facilitates supporting getting archaeologists involved in the 2022 Special, Lance still refers to archaeologists using the homophobic slur ‘beardy bum-chums’. There is something ‘masculine’ about metal detecting and something ‘queer’ about archaeology it seems.
Lance’s snobbery is exhibited later on when Andy invites him to help the archaeologists and dig the spoil heaps – to himself he says ‘I don’t detect spoil heaps: vulgar’. Meanwhile, treasure-hunting is shown as generally a harmless and affable pursuit, with landowners’ permission secured that is. ‘Nighthawking’ – illegal metal detecting – is only vaguely mentioned and the obligation and responsibilities to report finds only partially explained.
In any case, the storyline thus far has done its best to circumvent many of the most important ethical and social issues. Lance and Andy (a) fail to find the East Saxon ship-burial they are seeking for in series 1 and thus avoid the ethical and legal issues they’d face had they found it; (b) discover the Anglo-Saxon aestel but outside of a funerary context as a stray find in series 2; (c) magpies have already operated as the ‘amateur archaeologists’ recovering a Roman hoard of 162 gold coins from the plough soil in series 3.
In this 2022 special we learn they never received part of the reward for the discovery of the Roman gold coins which went to the rival metal-detecting club Terra Firma led by ‘Simon and Garfunkel’, so any sense of monetary gain is circumvented. Still, the desire for monetary reward isn’t restricted to the ‘bad guys’ of the show: Lance greedily refers to the potential of the new permission as ‘pay dirt’ and his desire for monetary gain seems enhanced in this series so as to oppose Andy’s more archaeological interest in the finds and the story revealed through the context of their discovery. The implication of ill-gotten money is implied by the exorbitant clothes and vehicle of ‘Simon and Garfunkel’ when they finally show up at the rally. They act like golfers with a caddy presumably paid for in part from the reward they received for the Roman gold coins. Sheila calls them ‘greedy pigs’ and we are left to presume they have acted this way on other occasions.
Despite these differences, the show retains a sense of the shared identity of detectorists via a long-running joke of being called ‘Detectorists’ by their equipment name: ‘Metal detectors’. The show presents a responsible agreement of a 50/50 contract between the landowner Kevin and Lance and Andy but things turn odd when we consider how they respond to their amazing discoveries. First they find the intact small ceramic cup and what is shocking is their indifference when many detectorists would immediately realise this was a rare find of significant antiquity. They throw the pot from one to the other and Andy declares it ‘Colchester Ware, made somewhere near Colchester’. Lance retorts: ‘You like crockery, you keep it… Not to bothered about kitchenware, I’m looking for metal’. Obviously, in reality this would be a remarkable find worthy of reporting to the Portable Antiquities Scheme given its potential antiquity and whole, intact character.
This relative indifference is repeated when they find a sword pommel despite correctly identifying it as early medieval: ‘Saxon’ and ‘nice find’: I suspect most metal detectorists would be elated to say the least! By way of contrast, they are shown enthused at the discovery of quite recent finds. Lance uncovers a toy Scooby Doo Mystery Machine. The mild mocking of detectorists’ joy in finding largely modern discard is thus a repeated theme of the show. Russ later finds a Nokia 5110 and Lance is fascinated: ‘look at that!’, illustrating the nostalgia can operate for the very recent items: ‘fashion accessory of the year, 1999’.
The celebration of the mundane and technical aspects of metal detecting clubs is embodied in Terry and his evening talk on ‘the pros and cons of calibrated balance versus pulse induction when coping with ground mineralisation.’ Their meetings, followed by a visit to the pub, do illustrate the key social dimensions of the activities which are themselves largely conducted in isolation. Terry’s hilariously prosaic approach to the amazing finds Andy and Lance finally present is ‘Well, this is unprecedented, the first time we have ever had to extend the finds’ table’. Meanwhile Russ attempts a joke based on the film Jaws: ‘you’re gonna need a bigger finds’ table’. The true sociality of the rally involving the entire club is also celebrated over the initial desire to protect the permission by Lance.
The most negative portrayal is Lance hiding his gold find from Andy and then his obsessive secrecy, lying on the phone to his girlfriend Toni and refusing to let Andy into his house. He was instead busy conducting a botched conservation and investigation of the find himself. This leads to it breaking, and yet he still doesn’t realise at this point how damaging and selfish his behaviour is, calling Andy a ‘teacher’s pet’ for reporting his theory about the Battle of Braintree to the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Lance asks Toni to look after the find, acting like a comedic jewel thief or the dark-side of Bilbo Baggins. It is only Toni who explains rationally that he has already broken protocols and that if archaeologists were involved, it would produce amazing results and benefit both Andy and Lance. So it is once again the women in their lives, Becky and Toni, who are shown more clued up with a sense of responsibility regarding the artefacts they find and their archaeological significance than Andy and Lance. Lance reflects and repents. He duly reburies the gold for Andy to find back in the field. But then Toni questions this act and asks whether it wouldn’t have been better simply to have kept it in his pocket and pretended to find it again. Lance replies: ‘bloody hell, that’s a much better idea’. Lance does the right thing in the end, but shows himself to be not only dithering but full of pride; he only joins Andy on the train to London at the very last minute.
But Lance is not alone in this bias; Andy’s relative disinterest in the earth-shocking news that Becky has resigned her job – presumably the main income for their family – reveals their detecting obsession detaches them from real-world social and economic concerns even when they are right on his doorstep.
The balance between ancient and modern remains positive, however, with the episode illustrates how humble finds can reveal so much about the human past but also how cherished finds can be also mundane and relatively recent items. We learn that the cottage Andy and his wife had purchased had burned down. Yet Andy goes into the ruins and retrieves a mason jar full of tobacco pipe stems and takes it home. He reflects on its state and the connect it makes to Andy owning the plot upon which the cottage’s ruins remain. Other small acts of kindness by detectorists remain us to understand their humanity, as when Hugh asks Lance to take his place at the press conference because he doesn’t want to miss the skip. The detectorists are presented as eccentric and disconnected at times but inevitably responsible and thoughtful of other’s feelings.
Indeed, the episode finally makes clear the key lesson all along: it is the ugly and unexpected things that are the real ‘treasure’ – and who made them and why. Later, Stan explains this to his Dad Andy. He explains that they don’t need feel sad they don’t get the reward for the gold they found, because he made them some ‘treasure’ at Saturday Club. We later find that he was right in more ways than one: it contains the ceramic cup that they had found! Thus, Stan’s art, whose value is personal and through gift-giving, conceals the deeper truth that value is contingent and contextual. Moreover, the ceramic cup serves to present this moral lesson and Lance’s relative indifference to Stan’s gift is part of the ‘curse’ of his blinkered attitude towards old things too.
So the cup is the real treasure hidden in plain sight and serves as an effective strand of critique of metal detecting. Andy and Lance’s fixation on metal finds results in their disregard for an intact ceramic urn that not only is their first discovery, but one that context of the early Anglo-Saxon battlefield reveals might have been the Holy Grail! The comedy works: Lance and Andy’s hobby focuses in ‘finds’ without adequate context which can lead them to be blind to the most significant finds of all! Only the viewers are comforted in knowing that they are not too late, and the ‘grail’ has indeed been saved and incorporated into Andy’s son’s garish ornament gifted to Lance.
The 2022 special further reveals a kind but mocking portrayal of metal detectorists. Moreover, in many ways, the most satisfactory and candid portrayal to date because the episode tackles directly the relationship between ethics and archaeological practice as Lance uncovers further artefacts from the battlefield whilst Andy reports the finds to the Portable Antiquities Scheme. The urge to guard and conceal discoveries is pitched against the desire to report and explore. Indeed, it is Becky who reinforces this approach upon Andy who early on is swayed to follow Lance in maintaining the site’s secrecy. The tension is finally resolved at Lance’s realising the error of his ways. The episode ends with an archaeological excavation taking place in which the detectorists are fully involved – a positive and ethical outcome for all concerned.
Archaeology and archaeologists are given a better write-up in this episode than previous series. Andy asserts “There’s no money in archaeology” which might be true but Becky retorts: “There’s no money in doing fuck all either”. And after all, both Lance and Andy show more respect for the evidence of the soil rather than the Venerable Bede, and so have more in common with archaeologists than perhaps they might admit.
Reflecting on the presentation of the finds at the British Museums, the profile of archaeology is celebrated if also gently parodied. On the train to London, Andy wonders who will be there for the conference. Lance responds: “Journalists, academics. Everyone, I reckon. Archaeology is the new ‘rock ‘n’ roll all the big hitters will be interested in this one. The specific celebrity archaeologist Professor Alice Roberts is evoked when Andy speculates: ‘Do you think she’ll be there’? In reality there is a medieval curator and a representative from the PAS, both of whom fit into a stereotype of middle-class academics and professionals. The downside is Andy gets to hear the lead academic (it isn’t clear whether he is an historian or archaeologist) pleased at his own attempts at humour and in a rather pompous style of delivery pronounces Andy’s theory about the Battle of Braintree back to him as he sits in the audience. This is perhaps the most plausible element of the episode!
In summary, multiple aspects of the complexity and tensions between metal detectorists, archaeologists and the wider public are gently but clearly presented and the episode as a clearer moral compass and ethical direction than previous narratives. Despite resolving their differences, Lance and Andy share a commonality with archaeology in their desire to explore the past through material evidence, yet they remain rather different from each other and from archaeologists in their attitudes and practices towards the past and its treasures, differences which the comedy drama doesn’t attempt to fully resolved.
‘Once again, the Venerable Bede is talking out of his arsehole’ – Early Anglo-Saxon Archaeology in Detectorists
Detectorists constitutes a modern-day Anglo-Saxonism. The show takes us to the land of RAF Lakenheath, West Stow, Rendlesham, Ipswich, Sutton Hoo, and the 2022 Special affords us an East Anglian/East Saxon counterpart to the Staffordshire Hoard.
Building on the prominent featuring of early Anglo-Saxon archaeology in series 1 and 2, the 2022 Special valorises material dialogues with early England through metal detecting. In the mock Lord’s Prayer said ahead of the rally, ‘Roman’, ‘Saxon’ and ‘Viking’ get specific mention. When on the train to London, Andy and Lance discuss the University Challenge episode with questions on Sutton Hoo and deride the contestants’ inability to answer. They knew the answers of course! Both detectorists mention Rendlesham as the royal seat of the East Anglian kings without needing to explain it to each other. The show presents both Andy and Lance has immersed in historical and archaeological knowledge of the early Anglo-Saxons.
Having discovered the sword pommel and unanimously and simultaneously dating it to the ‘Saxon’ period, Andy comes up with a theory. The mix of place-name and amateur historical research is combined with their metal detecting finds to propose a new location for the fictional Battle of Braintree: an early Anglo-Saxon battlefield between the pagan King Raedwald of East Anglia versus the Christian King Aethelbert of Kent (who it is explained led the first Christian army in Britain according to the Venerable Bede). The locations of the East Anglian royal site of Rendlesham and the route from Kent’s royal locus around Canterbury are used as points of origin for the two armies and thus to suggest that this location might be more plausible for the event recorded by Bede than Braintree.
This storyline is of course inspired in broad terms not only by the excavations at Sutton Hoo and Prittlewell, but by the Staffordshire Hoard discovery in 2003.
Building on this idea, Andy sees the character of the finds as supporting his inference; the pommels are interpreted on no clear grounds as ‘standard issue’ and therefore the site is a ‘military base or site of a battle’. Further finds are listed as two pommels, almost identical as well as a bridle fitting, strap end, buckle and part of a spur (this last example is anachronistic). Lance retorts regarding the supposition that the battle site was near Braintree: ‘once again, the Venerable Bede is talking out of his arsehole’ (a throwback comment to series 1).
The inspiration from the Staffordshire Hoard is further revealed by the discovery of ecclesiastical elements alongside the martial items: a gold strip inscribed with text. This relates to the key spiritual element of the ceramic cup. We learn that the gold is a panel from a reliquary reading ‘Gregory had me made’ in Latin and that the cup might have been the relic it contained. Andy and Lance only realise this when at the British Museum hearing the academic discuss the Venerable Bede’s reference to the reliquary being taken into multiple battles by King Aethelbert and that it had come to Britain with St Augustine from Pope Gregory the Great.
The viewers are shown the historicity of this theory and how Andy’s initial attribution of it as ‘Colchester ware’ was spurious when we follow it back to its manufacture and use in Palestine in 33 CE and the making of the cup’s story and its inclusion in a reliquary, brought to Aethelbert’s court and taken into battle. It is thus presented as a holy relic taken into battle by King Aethelbert against Raedwald and which Andy’s son Stan uses to make into a piece of art and given to Lance. The tragedy is that Andy and Lance cannot remember what happened to the cup, but they recall that Russ drank tea from it and immediately looked younger and healthier! The speculation that the cup had curative properties is extended to the spiritual rumble of ‘thunder’/noise of battle every time a find is identified in the field.
Conclusion: ‘a minefield of madness’
We leave Andy and Lance fearing that they’ve let the most significant find of their career slip through their fingers, even if viewers know it awaits discovery hidden in plain sight within Stan’s ‘treasure’ gift to Lance. But while they propose searching the dump to see if the cup was taken away by skip with the clearing out of the Scout hall, they realise that this is a pathway to madness. Moreover, they recognise there are so many paths to madness in detecting the human past that it is a ‘minefield of madness’.
Even more than the three series and earlier Christmas special, this 2022 episode tackles through comedy drama more real connections between the ethics and practice of metal detecting, its potentials for discovery, especially to contribute to the story of early England but also its pitfalls of focusing on stray metal finds in the plough soil. Despite concerns regarding the implausible cursory, almost incompetent, disinterest in the discovery of the cup and first pommel, I otherwise consider it a stand-alone joy and triumph that through comedy touches on contemporary issues surrounding attitudes and practices to early Anglo-Saxons and the contemporary landscape.
Loved this special episode- and great to see the PAS get some recognition as well- the PAS ‘walk-in centre’ made me laugh a bit.
Linking into the previous post about Detectorists and it’s role in creating an perception of archaeology and national origins, I think it’s interesting to consider that Jonny Flynn (who created the beautiful title music and other instrumental pieces for show, whilst other songs of his featured in some episodes) has also now created a theme for BBC Two’s Digging for Britain ‘Coins for the Eyes’ with Lyrics by the landscape writer Robert Macfarlane, and again other songs featured in some episodes. A concious decision has obviously been made to create a similar musical and lyrical world to that of Detectorists.
The lyrics of Coins for the eyes are amazing and well worth a ponder, so I’ve put them down here:) (* denotes where I think Genius got the lyric wrong, I’ve changed it but am a bit unsure)
We dig for the Gods that leave no bones
For the ship that sailed in the sunken sea
There’s a lot to discarded stones
The famine road, and the merchants keep
Come and search for, we would search
And looking for a scarred land
Turn the soil
Weave a dream
Dread the river, rig the sand
And dig for those whose stories lie with buried paths and futures won
And dig for us as we have done
To lay the dead out in thе sun
To lay us dead out in the sun
Coins for the еyes and keys for the door
Fortress, grave goods, chambered too
Abandoned villages, rumours of war
We dig for pattern, reap the reward
And so a clue to who were are
And where we were
And why we will
Inheritors of knowledge now
And ancestors to those who still*
I dig for those whose stories lie with buried paths and futures won
And dig for us as we have done
To lay the dead out in the sun
To lay us dead out in the sun
More likely coincidence, but Flynn also plays a supporting role (name forgotten) in The Dig!
Final point- Ghosts, another TV sitcom with a firm historical slant and obviously a lot of death and memory embedded into it is definitely recommended (although accuracy isn’t great:() Given it’s viewing figures are slanted toward a younger demographic, I wonder if that show will influence future concepts of death, memory and ideas around the past.
Crikey – I’m being educated! Thanks so much I hadn’t caught up on all of this!